Mail-In Rebates Suck

I love going to Fry's to check out whatever deep discount sale they have going on. The only thing I don't like is that they usually achieve those prices through the use of mail-in rebates (MIRs). For example, they had a sale going where you could get a 160GB Hitachi hard drive for $30. The price at the register was $90, and I received a form for a $60 MIR. I have had success with Fry's rebates in the past, and I thought this was just too good of a deal to pass up. Six weeks later, I receive an e-mail from RebatesHQ that says my submission was invalid due to a missing sales receipt. I knew I had packed the receipt. My co-worker gave me the idea to call and double check. Well, finding the customer support number for this company was a serious chore. I did eventually find it (using this extraordinarily helpful list) and got through to their automated help center. I went through the menus, entered my confirmation number, and listened to the current status of my rebate. After the status was given, the automated attendant said "Press One to repeat this information, or hang-up to end this conversation...". Then there was a long pause. To my surprise, after waiting a moment I got a new option, "Press 2 to speak to a customer service representative." Woohoo! After speaking to the rep, I learned that the information on my rebate was simply incorrectly entered. He saw that they did have my receipt and it was properly dated. I should get my rebate check in the next couple of weeks. Success!

My buddy at work tipped me off to how these rebates work. Essentially, a rebate clearing house like RebatesHQ guarantees Hitachi that no more than X% of qualifying customers will actually turn in a valid rebate. This percentage is very low, less than 60%. Hitachi then issues a payment for that percentage to the clearing house. If the clearing house receives less than the estimated number of rebates, they make a profit. If they receive more, they take a loss. Given that scenario, the rebate clearing house makes it as difficult as possible to properly submit your rebate information. They have you send your rebate form to some little served post office in BFE. Then, they occassionally "lose" parts of your submission and send you a post card asking for you to resubmit, knowing full well that you've probably thrown away any copies you may have kept of your purchase receipt. They had their phone numbers, and make it really difficult to reach them. It took me a bit of research to find the number for RebatesHQ, and once I did, the service rep was helpful, but there were times that I felt like just giving up. He was breathing heavy into the phone, and asking the same questions multiple times. My perserverance paid off though, and I'm looking forward to getting that check in the mail.

If you ever buy something with a MIR, make sure to send it in. And if it looks like you may have forgotten something, track down the clearing house and give them a call. Chances are, you can clear it up over the phone and get your rebate in short order. I have to give RebatesHQ credit here. In the end, they were helpful, and their online and telephone status information is nice. I'll probably continue buying equipment with MIRs, but I'll only do so when no better option is available.

Birthday / Christmas Lists

My birthday is coming up fairly soon, and folks who love me (yes some people are crazy enough to do that) are asking what I might like as a gift. I got to thinking about it, and it made me realize just how blessed we are. There isn't anything that I absolutely need that I don't already have. Sure, there are lots of very selfish things that I might want, but all of the essentials in life are covered. I have a wonderful, loving family, a fun and affectionate (if mildly psychotic) dog, a good job that I like, and plenty of hobbies to keep me busy. We've been so busy with work, selling the house, playing with Corbin, and basicly living our lives that I haven't found myself just sitting idle.

That said, there are still some things that would be fun to have. You can click the link on the right side of the page under where it says "Feeling Generous" to see a quick wish list I put together on Froogle. If I were to pick just a couple, here is what I would pick:

  1. Ninja Gaiden Black for the XBox
  2. One Year Susbscription to Sirius Satellite Radio
  3. Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan
  4. A Gameboy Micro or a Nintendo DS
  5. "Walking around money" at Fry's

I always have reservations about giving out wish lists though. I'm into some fairly technical / obscure stuff, and finding the right item isn't always easy, even when you understand what I'm asking for. I'm also torn as to whether I really want to put more video game systems on my wishlist. I have plenty of systems already, and there are scads of great games for them at discount prices that I have never played. Still, it is a wishlist, so I'm going for it :-) The Nintendo DS vs. Gameboy Micro issue sort of vexes me. I mean, it would be sort of silly to have both, although I would certainly love to have one of each if anyone were so generous. The DS is a gameboy with two screens and a touch pad. The Micro is a tiny gameboy with a backlit screen. The Micro would be great for just keeping in my backpack or pocket, and would be a fun upgrade from my current, first generation Gameboy Advance that lacks a backlit screen (very painful, trust me). The Micro is only priced a shade less than the DS though, which offers TWO backlit screens, and plays not only GBA games, but also the new set of DS games that take advantage of the dual screen and touch pad.

The above list is pretty much in order of preference. It's a given that, if I get nothing else, I want a nice day with the family for my birthday. But if I were lucky enough to receive presents, Ninja Gaiden Black tops the list.

What would I "walk around" to at Fry's? I've been using my aging Gateway 2000 PC as a Linux computer for a while, but the old cow (FYI - all gateways come in boxes with cow spots, thus I refer to this lovable beast of burden as the big fat cow) just doesn't have the muscle to keep up anymore. I'd really like to have a bit swifter, second PC running Linux available. The reason is that our primary PC is getting bogged down by the services necessary to run all of the peripherals we've attached to it. I got a free motherboard from a buddy, and now all I need to get it running are the extras - hard drive, RAM, power supply / case, DVD. Once complete, I could attach all of our digital camera, video camera, scanner, printer, and other devices to it, and our primary PC could run smoothly again. Putting those items on a wishlist for someone else to buy is an exercise in getting people to hate me, so I chose to put "walking around money".

Hopefully this doesn't come off as incredibly selfish or greedy. Like I said at the start, I feel really good about how my life is going, and lucky to be in a position where I don't want for anything. Still, birthdays are a little bit about being selfish, so there is my list. Please coordinate with Jenn if you are getting anything, as she has a master list of who is getting what. Thanks family, I love you all!

Cool Optical Illusion

I love optical illusions, and this one was just too cool not to share.

Combating Comment Spam

Several fellow bloggers have noticed comment spam creeping into their blogs. Comment spam is where you receive comments that advertise for Viagra or something and it is totally unrelated to your post. Fortunately, Blogger has introduced a new feature to help combat comment spam. It's called Word Verification. Word Verification shows an image on your comment entry screen and asks that the commenter enter the text from the image. The text is wavy, or slightly distorted in some way such that it can't be easily read by a program, but real people will have no problem recognizing it. It is a small extra step to make sure that your comments section don't get overrun with spam. I'll be turning it on here. If you have a blog, you might want to consider too.

Price of Freedom

We hear a lot in the news about the price of our freedoms. Usually it is in reference to the price we pay in lives defending our freedoms by sending troops to the middle east. I feel that the real price we pay for freedom, the one we pay everyday and will continue to pay so long as we wish to be a truly free society, was thrust into the limelight yesterday in Toledo, OH. If you haven't seen this in the news yet, a group called the National Socialist Movement had made arrangements for a police protected march through a portion of town. The National Socialist Movement is a self-called Nazi organization, promoting white supremacy ideals. What ensued was a major clash between local residents and youth gangs and the police ordered to supervise the march.

I want to make very clear that I couldn't disagree more with the politics that the National Socialist Movement promotes. I say that because I don't want there to be any confusion that I am defending their organization. However, I mentioned that Toledo was an example of the price we pay for our freedoms. The price we pay for our freedom of speech, our freedom of press, and our freedom to associate is that we have to endure others promoting ideas we don't agree with. Larry Flint is probably the greatest exploiter of this situation. Flint owns the publication house that produces pornographic magazines like Hustler, which have arguably little artistic content. Still, Flint has time and again found himself in front of the Supreme Court and other high courts, defending his right to produce such a publication based on those same freedoms we hold so dear.

Unfortunately, the result of the gathering in Toledo was chaos. Rather than ignore the march, which would deal the harshest blow possible to the group, people turned out in force and began rioting. This was precisely the type of behavior that the National Socialist Movement had hoped to incite, as it would reinforce the beliefs they promote. The people who turned out to riot were, in fact, helping the organization by providing much publicized images that they could then turn and use in their pamphlets.

The sad truth is that in order to enjoy our freedoms, we must also pay the price that we allow those with differing views from ours (and even ugly, disgusting beliefs like the National Socialist Movement promotes) be allowed to exercise their rights as much as we do. The best weapon that the people of Toledo could use against this group is not stones and rioting and violence, but to not provide any eyes and ears to receive the message. It is a difficult choice to make, to protest through inaction rather than action, but it is absolutely the best method in this case.

Microsoft is Scared

The conference I'm attending isn't put on by Microsoft, but it is covering Microsoft tools and most of the speakers are drinking the Microsoft Kool-Aid. It struck me tonight the Microsoft is definitely scared. Scared of Apple and especially scared of Google. Microsoft has gone through the last three decades following a farely predictable and very successful model. They wait for someone to innovate in a particularly interesting way. They then either buy the company that performed the innovation, or take all of their ideas and make an even better product out of it. It has happened time and again, and with the incredible wealth of the company, both financially and intellectually, they have been able to continuously squash competitors and march forward. This model is very dependent on one thing, though, and that is the assumption that the initial innovators suck at getting the product to market. Microsoft is an absolute champ at getting 2nd-generation software to market in an easy to use, well packaged form. In most cases, the initial innovator comes up with an outstanding idea that is very useful and people will love it. Unfortunately, the initial innovator spends all of their effort in developing the idea itself, and not in how to properly deliver it in a form that people will find easy to use. In other cases, the product may be easy to use and perfectly implements the innovative idea, but it is horribly ugly. Whatever the case may be, the initial innovator rushes to market with this astounding new product but leaves open a huge gap for improvement. In swoops Microsoft with their second generation product which is either a) the same product because MS bought the company, b) better because Microsoft took the idea and took advantage of the room for improvement, or c) bundled into the operating system, negating the need to install the competitors product. This pattern has been seen in the word processing space, the groupware space, the browser space, and in just about any area where Microsoft invests.

Microsoft is scared though. They are scared of Apple and of Google because they are innovating at a rapid pace, and they aren't making those first run mistakes that Microsoft can capitalize on. The iPod is a good example. There isn't anything particularly special about the iPod from a technical perspective. It is functionally just like any other digital music player: flash or hard drive storage, plays a variety of formats, easy to carry around. The iPod has one very important thing going for it that Microsoft know that it can't beat: it is sexy! The iPod broke new ground in that it oozed style when it first appeared. First generation MP3 players were ugly, unfriendly, geek toys. The iPod was sleek, and dead simple with the introduction of the click-wheel. Apple beat Microsoft to the punch in getting the second generation product out, and left little if any room for improvement. And Apple didn't stop there. They released iTunes, a music store for purchasing and downloading music for your iPod. I consider iTunes a first generation music store, and in this case, it was innovative while leaving very little room for improvement. There was little room for Microsoft to improve upon with a second generation implementation, and add to that the headache of working with the music industry to try to get the product integrated into the OS. Microsoft lost the battle before it even started. So now, at this conference, the Microsoft cheerleaders are begrudgingly giving away iPod minis that were provided as prizes by one of the vendors. It was almost sad that pathetic little rant that one speaker went into before giving one away. It went something like, "This is a piece of junk! How many of you have bought more than one iPod? It's because it's junk!". No one in the croud was sympathizing with him, and there were great cheers when each iPod was put up for raffle.

Google is the other fear inducer for Microsoft. Once again, Google developed a tremendous innovation in the world of search, but left little room for improvement. The interface was clean and simple. The results were quick and accurate. Microsoft tried, and largely failed to beat Google at the search game with the MSN portal, and later the website. Now Google is expanding into other areas, and they are doing such a great job with their first iteration innovations that Microsoft is getting left in the dust. Google Maps, Frugal, Google Dictionary, Google Desktop Search, Picasa, Google Groups... a string of well done features. Certainly not all of these applications are new, but Google has done a great job of turning Microsoft's own game plan against them in the web world. MapQuest had good maps, now Google has fantastic mapping. Microsoft had a hard drive search feature, now Google has a fantastic desktop search tool. Google looks poised to continue this type of innovation and I'm sure the execs at Microsoft are wringing their hands over how to combat it. During this conference, Microsoft's own developers admitted under their breath that they were more likely to use Google Groups and other Google search tools to assist in solving their development issues than the equivalent MSN sites.

All that said, I don't think there is any chance of Microsoft seeing a drop in their stock price anytime soon. Microsoft has the operating system market securely in the bag, and it would take a monumental foul up on their part to lose it. Microsoft also has the productivity suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) and GroupWare (Outlook, Great Plains, SharePoint) solidly handled. Now that I've been developing with Microsoft's programming tools, I have to admit that they are head and shoulders above the crowd of free tools on the market, and some commercial tools I've tried. Still, Microsoft has reason to be concerned because their once ever expanding future markets have hit a couple of walls. It will be very interesting to see how this all shakes out.

Pennywise vs. Knucklehead

One other thing that I've noticed that is pretty much universal to everyone here at the conference (and it may not just be unique to us conference attendees, but I've noticed here), is that we are all extraordinarily cheap. There are a couple of vendors here giving away prizes and swag, and we (myself included) are all going to great lengths just for the opportunity to get this crap. Keep in mind that nearly everyone at the conference earns something like $25 / hour or more. Yet we are willing to stand in line for 15 minutes for the opportunity (not guarantee) of winning a $3 T-shirt. Just tonight I stood in line for a little over 30 minutes to get a free 32MB USB Drive. I think you can buy these at Target for $10 or less, and I'm sure the one I got was just surplus from some big box electronics seller that was trying to offload excess inventory. To be fair, the USB drive also included the opportunity to win an iPod mini (which I didn't). Then, there was "Midnight Madness", which was neither mad, nor did it run to midnight. Instead, from 8:30-10:00pm, there was a raffle for trinkets, software, more USB drives, and 4 iPod Minis. I didn't win anything. In total I think I've waited around in the attempt to get free shtuff for a close to 3 hours now throughout the conference. So far I've received the afore mentioned USB drive and a tootsie-roll. Something isn't right here.

Calling Average Joe

This week I'm in Orlando for a technical conference. I'm learning quite a bit, and had the fantastic opportunity to enhance the trip by taking a day of vacation and visiting the parks with the fam prior to the start of the conference. Now that it is in full swing, I feel a lot like I'm back at college. You've got all of the typical nerd/geek/dork archetypes here. If you have ever seen the reality TV show "Average Joe", then you'll understand when I say that the next time they need to do a casting call, they need go no further than a technical conference. I'm not trying to be cruel, or to suggest that I'm somehow better than the other attendees, it is just funny to be surrounded by folks that so typify the stereotypes of your occupation. First thing you'll notice is that the usually man-woman ratio has taken a drastic turn towards the male side. I'd wager that less than 10% of the conference attendees are women. The gender ratio may be very off-balance, but the nationality makeup has definitely become more diverse. I've met folks not just from across the US, but also from the former Soviet Union, Britain, and Germany, and overheard conversations in languages that I couldn't guess the origin of. The one unifying factor is that we are all hopelessly attached to our gadgets, and we all effect the IT stereotype to one degree or another.

There are several nerdy molds I've seen filled here at the show:

  • Who Needs Hygiene

    These are the guys who are so deep in though, who spend so many hours at their machine at night hacking away, that they completely forget about personal hygiene needs. They have a sort of Grizzly Adams meets Cousin It look. Hair is usually long and unkempt (although hopefully recently cleaned), beard has completely occupied the face territory. Pants are a couple of sizes to short as they were purchased by someone else as a gift years ago, and never took the time to get a correctly sized pair. Nothing matches, socks included. Trying to carry a conversation with these guys on anything but the topic they are currently embedded in is totally useless.
  • Mumblers

    One drawback to working with computers, especially if you telecommute or otherwise work remotely, is that you run the risk of losing touch with humanity. This can lead to the loss (if ever developed firstly) of social skills, paritcularly the ability to speak in an audible tone. Several times folks in a lecture have wanted to make a point, but just haven't been able to find the courage to speak loudly or clearly enough to be understood. Also, the inner monologue is completely gone. Making backhanded comments at your keyboard never hurts anyone, but sometimes that habit can rear itself in the middle of a speech in a most unfortunate way. If no one laughs, the poor soul then ducks his head in shame and puddles into nervous twitches.
  • Cocky Bastards

    This is my least favorite type of nerd. When you get into a highly technical field, you are usually regarded among your non-technical peers as bright person. Smarter than your average bear. Unfortunately, some in the field take this as an opportunity to expound upon their brilliance to anyone in earshot, and continuously attempt to show how their intellect is superior to everyone else in the room. These are the rare nerds who are actually looking to talk to you. Actually, they are looking to talk at you. They really aren't concerned with what you have to say, they just want to be sure that you understand how miniscule your troubles are in comparison to the world saving cleverness they are about to implement into their next block of code.
  • Goony Birds

    This is my favorite kind of geek. A goony bird is someone who, at some stage in their life, endured a period of tremendous social awkwardness. Perhaps they had a physical feature that was different (not bad, just different), or were the straight A student without trying, or for some reason felt that they just weren't part of the "in-crowd". It's really hard to accurately describe the goony birds. They usually have some quirk, habit, or hobby that is a bit odd. Friends and family might describe them as "different", "interesting", "odd", or just plain "weird". The unifying feature of the goony birds is that they have developed a sort of humility without becoming a mumbler. They generally have up-beat, happy attitudes, and love to talk about whatever quirky thing it is that they are into, but can still relate to "normal" things.

I'm sure that there are other types of nerds, and there are probably finer breakdowns of the nerd species that I haven't enumerated here, but these are the stand-out stereotypes I've noticed on this trip. And I'll just go ahead and admit to belonging to all of these stereotypes in at least one period of my life. Growing up I would say I was probably a mumbler. Into college I turned into a Who Needs Hygiene guy. Somewhere along that timeframe I was also a cocky bastard, and I still have a little bit of that now (although I swear I'm continuously working on that). Now I consider myself primarily a goony bird. Sure, I've got my quirks, but I'm not so out there that I can't hold a normal conversation with someone outside the IT industry.

What kind of Nerd are you?

Serenity (Now!)

Saturday Jenn and I were lucky enough to snag Opa and Oma as babysitters for the evening so we could go catch a movie. We went to see Serenity and I loved it! The story was great, and followed along with how the 14 episodes of Firefly had built up the plot. I never read the three issue comic book series, so there were some small gaps that I missed, but really you could watch this movie without ever seeing the television show and still enjoy it. I even caught Jenn laughing out loud at a couple of sections of the movie. That's one of the things I really like about Serenity/Firefly... it doesn't rely on special effects to carry the film. Instead, the characters are charming, the dialogue is witty, and the story is intrigueing.

It so hard to give a good description of the show such that someone would be enticed to go watch. I mean, "The adventures of a group of misfits as they do odd jobs and get into scrapes" really doesn't capture it. What really grabs me about the series is how different it is from your typical space opera. This isn't the ultra-clean environment of the recent Star Trek series, nor is it the clear cut Good vs. Evil story of Star Wars. Instead, the division between good and evil, right and wrong are blurred. The crew of the Serenity aren't clean cut, uniform wearing stiffs. Instead, they each have their own individual quirks, and nothing about the Serenity is clean or organized like you might find on the Enterprise (referred to as the Sheraton of the future by Joss Whedon).

I'm not really sure I'm giving a compelling argument to go watch the show. All I can say is, Jenn and I both enjoyed it. If you are on the fence, duck into Blockbuster and rent the Firefly DVD set. Watch a couple of episodes and see if it piques your interest. If it does, you'll love the movie. If not, then perhaps Serenity isn't your cup of tea.

Jade Mason